Mitt Romney has been caught saying what he really thinks – or in modern journalistic jargon has committed a 'gaffe'. Serious American commentators believe that his election challenge is all but over after he declared, that 47 per cent of the electorate will vote for Obama no matter what because they were 'dependent upon government'. They saw themselves as victims, Romney explained. They believed the government had a responsibility to care for them, and that 'they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. ..They will vote for this president no matter what. . . . These are people who pay no income tax.'
To Romney’s mind, poor and working class Americans are the corrupted stooges of the left. Democrat politicians rob the taxpaying middle and upper classes and use the proceeds to buy them off. In return, the lower orders vote for those same Democratic politicians, who in turn give them more of other people’s money, and so the cycle of thieving and suborning continues. Many US conservatives – and many British conservatives – feel that way. The old fear that democracy will allow the poor to fleece property owners has never disappeared. Of course, there is a grain of truth in it. Equally obviously, if a politician blurts out his bad opinion of half his fellow countrymen and women as bluntly as Romney did his party might as well brand 'loser' to his forehead, and usher him to the nearest exit.
And yet hold on, in the last presidential election Barack Obama blurted out that to his mind small-town working-class Americans in the Mid-West had turned rightwards because they were 'bitter'. They had seen their prospects decline and decided to 'cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.'
The media decided that that was a gaffe too. But once again there had to be a little truth in it. Mainstream Republicans and the Tea Party received significant support from working class white Americans in the 2010 Congressional elections. Meanwhile the notion that, far from being caught in the Democrats’ dependency culture, white working class voters are the dupes of Republican propagandists has a long history on the US left. A few years ago, my old friend Thomas Frank went back to his home state to write What’s the Matter with Kansas . In a voice of baffled indignation, Frank described how he grew up in the wealthy Kansas City suburbs of Leawood and Mission Hills, whose inhabitants had scorned the lower classes. The lower classes had responded. They had risen like lions from their slumber. But their cause, said Frank, and their interests could not be further apart. Astonishingly, they had risen to support the Republican right.
'Americans have experienced a populist uprising that only benefits the people it is supposed to be targeting. In Kansas we merely see an extreme example of this mysterious situation. The angry workers, mighty in their numbers, are marching irresistibly against the arrogant. They are shaking their fists at the sons of privilege. They are laughing at the dainty affectations of the Leawood toffs. They are massing at the gates of Mission Hills, hoisting the black flag, and while the millionaires tremble in their mansions, they are bellowing out their terrifying demands. ‘We are here,’ they scream, ‘to cut your taxes.’'
Well quite. Republicans have been very successful at tapping mistrust of the liberal elite. But the left’s conspiracy theory cannot be wholly true either. If it were, Democrats would always lose in the American heartlands. Yet Pennsylvania and Ohio, the very states whose small towns Obama patronised, look as if they will vote for him in November.
The foreign observer is entitled to be confused.
The American right thinks that the working class have been captured by a dependency culture run by cynical Democrats, even though it wins significant white working class support.
The American left thinks that the working class has been captured by Bible-bashing, gun-toting Republicans who persuade them to vote against their interests, even though it can take that support back.
They cannot both be right. Indeed there are good grounds for thinking that they are equally wrong. It is not just that they regard their fellow citizens as fools or thieves – they have trouble regarding them at all. Elite politicians and commentators appear to look on members of the working class as if they are from another species. They have no instinctive understanding of what moves them. But then what do you expect from a country that talks as if the working class no longer exists, and pretends that nearly everyone is 'middle-class' – most especially when they are not.